In This Article Piers Plowman

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies of the Poet and His Persona
  • Langland’s Persona
  • Manuscript Facsimiles
  • Suggestions for a Different Ordering of the A, B, and C Versions
  • Manuscript Publication of Piers Plowman
  • Criticism of Editorial Practice
  • Translations
  • Alliterative Verse

Medieval Studies Piers Plowman
by
Lawrence Clopper
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0161

Introduction

William Langland or William of Cleobury Mortimer (fl. 1360s–1380s) is the author of Piers Plowman, an allegorical poem (see Allegory) structured as a series of Dream Visions. The poem, narrated by an unnamed speaker usually referred to as the “Dreamer,” relates a series of dreams purportedly had by a person who within the dreams is named “Wille” (see Langland’s Persona). The narrative opens with Wille’s vision of the cosmos described as a hill with a tower on top, a dark dale below with a dungeon, and, in between, a fair field of folk working and wandering as the world asks. An opening dialogue with Dame Holy Church concerning what the vision means initiates a journey through the world Wille experiences (the royal court and the trial of Lady Mede and, through the confessions of the seven deadly sins, life and labor in London) until he meets an idealized plowman, Piers. After an argument with a local priest, Piers suddenly abandons his labors to go on a pilgrimage to Truth. The remainder of the poem in the B- and C-versions describes Wille’s sometimes unfocused journey in pursuit of Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest and then of Piers the Plowman in the interest of his personal salvation. Dating the versions of the poem has proved difficult. There are few topical allusions to guide the process. Some of these are specific enough that they are not under dispute, but there are a number that are open to more than one interpretation. The A-text or A-version was composed c. 1365–early 1370s, underwent at least two revisions, the B-text or B-version (1377–1378) and the C-text or C-version (c. 1380s). The proposed Z-text is said to have antedated A.

General Overviews

Given the complexity of Piers Plowman, few scholars in the first half of the 20th century or before attempted to engage the whole poem; commentary, as it still does, tends to focus on singular events in the poem, the “Pardon” scene being the most notorious, or, in much early criticism, questions about authorship, authenticity, historical references, and the like. In this section are two early influential commentaries (Donaldson 1949, Frank 1957) that argued for a kind of coherence in the poem (now accepted, but at the time still in question) and two very good recent guides to the poem (Baldwin 2007, Simpson 1990).

  • Baldwin, Anna. A Guidebook to Piers Plowman. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

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    Baldwin’s Guide presents a succinct running commentary on Piers but one that fronts rather than answers crucial questions in the poem. Because she has designed the book for students first encountering the poem (as well as for teachers), Baldwin does not provide her understanding of a particular occurrence in the text but proposes a series of questions to lead students into interpretation of the text.

  • Donaldson, E. Talbot. Piers Plowman: The C-Text and Its Poet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1949.

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    This exceptional book established the basic understanding of many events, often matters of critical dispute, in the C-text but in B as well. Of particular moment to current readers are the sections “The Art of the C-Reviser,” “The Politics of the C-Reviser,” and a very important one on the biographical material relevant to the life of the poet. Of politics Donaldson believed that as a consequence of the rebels’ references to Piers Plowman in the Revolt of 1381 Langland undertook his revision of B in order to purge it of what could have been read as subversive (see Langland and the Revolt of 1381).

  • Frank, Robert W. Piers Plowman and the Scheme of Salvation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957.

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    Early successful reading of the whole poem argues that Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest were not a set of terms for another set of terms. Worked through Langland’s scheme of salvation to the conclusion that the crucial determiner was redde quod debes (“pay what you owe”), which requires the individual to know what is owed and to whom.

  • Schmidt, A. V. C., ed. Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C, and Z Versions. Vol. 2, Introduction, Textual Notes, Commentary, Bibliography and Indexical Glossary. 2 vols. Rev. 2d ed. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2011.

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    “The Poem in Time” is a valuable commentary on topics of debate surrounding the poem: authorship; audience; date and early reception; sequence of the versions; later reception; composition and revision of the poem; and sources.

  • Simpson, James. Piers Plowman: An Introduction to the B-Text. London: Longman, 1990.

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    Simpson’s masterful introduction is the current go-to book. Commentary is arranged according to the order of visions within the poem. Each chapter summarizes the events in that section followed by an introduction and discussion of topics important to that section. Topics range widely: estates satire, dream vision, personification allegory, ecclesiastical satire, and so forth. At the same time Simpson focuses on a theme that he believes central to the poem: the relationship between justice and mercy in the scheme of salvation.

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